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How Public Deliberation Helps In Public Policy


To tackle problems related to public policy, policymakers use the approach of public deliberation that entails the consideration of both evidence and values. However, uncertainty regarding why and when to implement it still prevails, with individuals questioning why it is more preferred to expert panels or public opinion polls. With guidance on the when and why of public deliberation, policy-makers can appropriately use it to inform public policy.

Public deliberation is not appropriate for every policy issue. In fact, surveys, polls, and focus groups are relevant when the aim is to access the ‘general attitudes’ or ‘top of mind’ of the public, or when the issue is one that people have experience with or think about in their everyday lives. Additionally, there are purely scientific or technical matters for which experts alone should be consulted, for instance, which flu viruses may be used to make the vaccine for next year. In this article, we explore how public deliberation helps in public policy.

When is a policy issue most suited for public deliberation?

Policy issues that suit well to public deliberation have at least one of the following features: low trust in government, real-world knowledge and combined expert, high controversy, and conflicting public values.

Low-trust issues

Public deliberation is quite useful for issues where the government and the public are at odds. Public health crises, for instance, influenza pandemics, severe acute respiratory syndrome (or SARS), and mad cow disease are situations where governments, based on their response, can lose, retain, or earn the trust of the public, countering challenges to governmental or scientific legitimacy. While the notion of public trust is quite complicated and is a result of multiple factors, both local and international. Therefore, public deliberation on low-trust issues shouldn’t be considered as a solution to the numerous causes of low trust, but conducted rather appropriately, as a means to increase accountability and transparency between the public and the policy-makers. In turn, this can promote increased trust.

Hybrid topics: Combining real-world and technical knowledge

In contrast to pure technical decisions that entail consultation with experts, hybrid topics need a more general reflection on practical and cultural knowledge on how specific decisions would impact the lives of people. The decisions about bio-banking, clinical trial design, vaccination mandates, and health insurance coverage are some examples of hybrid topics.

In decision-making, it is difficult to ignore the outcomes arising as a result of negligence for cultural knowledge. If the researchers of the University of Arizona had a public deliberation to ascertain the knowledge of social risks and harms posed by addiction, mental health, and pursuing ancestry, on the Havasupai tribe, they might have been able to avoid years of loss of trust, bad publicity, and lawsuits within the research enterprise.

The public exposure to the technical knowledge concerning complicated topics yields a more informed, more productive set of views that most likely result in more viable policy recommendations. In this manner, public deliberation is distinctly relevant to hybrid topics.

Controversial and divisive topics

While public values are usually relevant to numerous public policy decisions, not every one of these values is substantially divisive and controversial. Often, policymakers are cautious about consulting the public with regards to controversial topics like public health coverage, gene therapy, stem cell research, and genetically modified foods. Most likely, these types of issues are likely to generate standoffs if they are posed to the public without relevant facilitated discussion, framing, and background information.

The debate about whether deliberation processes lead to more diverse or heterogeneous positions or tend to produce more agreement on controversial issues is quite prevalent. While there is no need for public deliberation to come up with a consensus, it has the unique ability to acknowledge the diverse problems on the topic, with the aim of collectively dealing with thorny problems.

As per our perspective, moderated and well-designed public deliberation that seeks to articulate the underlying values and respects divergent views have more probability of yielding a set of collective policy responses, even if individuals don’t seem to agree on specific issues. In cases where it is difficult to reach a consensus, the positions resulting from public deliberation are better justified and articulated than those that participants begin with because every participant must engage with and acknowledge the opposing views, providing reasons to support their individual positions.

Decisions reflecting conflicting values about the public good

Majority of the public policy decisions make use of competing values about what benefits the individuals. However, those concerning competing values about what is best for society, country, or a community benefits most from public deliberation. For instance, setting policies for population bio-banking entail weighing consent and privacy against ease of output and research; and individual control over bio-banks against risks and benefits to un-consenting individuals and communities. The significance of moving the population science forward in an effective and efficient manner, while using this information to improve medical treatments must be weighed against the values of genetic security and privacy and of limiting controversial genetic research that is in conflict with cultural, religions, or other systems of belief.

When in the policy process?

The importance of both upstream and downstream public deliberation cannot be doubted; however, their effectiveness is based on the clarity with which expectations are established initially. If people are continuously involved solely in downstream, they can never challenge the fundamental options and questions of policy decisions and are limited to select among pre-established options only. When engaged exclusively in upstream, people have the flexibility of expressing their views; however, they never impact the real policy choices directly. These tradeoffs must be weighed in by the groups taking into account public deliberation. If possible, both the upstream and downstream engagement must be taken advantage of. If not, the participants must be made clear the implications of either of choice.

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Working with the Province of Ontario – Open Government

The Province of Ontario joined the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in 2016 as part of the first cohort of subnational governments. Don was closely involved in Ontario’s program from the start:

Engagement and deliberation can transform how decision-makers carry out critical tasks, shedding new light on issues and leading to new solutions. Middle Ground uses Informed Participation to transform:

Much of this work focuses on stakeholders and/or citizens outside an organization. However, the concerns of staff members within a government department or hospital often resemble those of citizens and stakeholders. For example, they may feel they have no voice in organizational changes that affect them; or in defining a vision for the future. Informed Participation can be an effective tool for solving issuesinsidethe walls of an organization, as well as outside of them, from policy making to culture change.

Hands-on learning is the best way to build skills and capacity in public deliberation. Middle Ground often uses actual engagement projects as a tool for knowledge-transfer to the client’s organization. Typically, Don will serve as the principal advisor, working closely with a team from the client’s firm, and advising them on how to design and implement the process. In addition, he may act as a facilitator and/or writer and analyst. These roles can be specially designed to create mentorship opportunities for the team and to build capacity within the client’s organization.

Middle Ground offers workshops and training courses on Informed Participation. These can extend from a half- to two days and will equip participants with the concepts, skills, and tools they need to design and implement deliberative processes. As an accomplished trainer, Don’s sessions are highly interactive and use lots of practical examples to illustrate the approach, along with group exercises to deepen the grasp of key concepts. Workshops can be custom designed to meet the specific needs of the client.


Every situation is different, and every engagement process should be designed to match the task at hand. This is about more than choosing between big and small processes, or online vs. face-to-face meetings. Informed Participation distinguishes between three differentstylesof public deliberation, each of which engages the participants in a different way:

These deliberative “styles” are natural patterns that discussion follows in daily life. For example, sometimes people use lots of narrative or storytelling, while at others they are far more focused on facts and analysis. If the goal is to solve a difficult technical problem, facts and analysis will matter. If the goal is to solve a deep values conflict, narrative may be the better option. We build features like these into a process to shape it in ways that ensure the process always matches the task.


Public deliberation should be led by an experienced, impartial facilitator. Informed Participation relies on approach that combines three different roles:



Over the years, Don has developed a distinctive style of report-writing that is widely recognized for clarity, accessibility, and its simple narrative style, especially when dealing with complex and often technical issues. Middle Ground uses a variety of document types to support our processes. These include short discussion papers, analyses of issues, comprehensive syntheses of ideas and options, summary reports, and case studies.

Don also regularly takes on writing and analysis tasks independently of his work on engagement processes

Middle Ground is more than a consulting firm. We provide thought leadership in public engagement. Our practice over the years has been to build learning opportunities into our consulting projects. These often include the production of “ideas” papers based on the learning from challenging projects that raise difficult issues and require innovative solutions. Some of these papers can be found on the Ideas page of our Access Publications page.